Pittsburgh’s Steps Are A Unique Asset, With An Uncertain Future

Nov 16, 2017

Pittsburgh is many kinds of city: it’s a sports city, it’s a robotics city, it’s a ketchup city. But at its most essential, Pittsburgh is a city of steep hills. In the early 1900s, public staircases were built all around the city to help people navigate challenging terrain. 

Now, the city has kicked off a process to preserve this unique, and useful, pedestrian network.

“There’s 737 individual sets of steps, more than any other city in the world," said Bob Regan, who wrote the book "The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City." Though the total number of steps varies based on how they’re counted—if a set of steps crosses over a street, is that one set of steps or two?—Regan is an expert.

While writing the book, he spent months traveling the city on bicycle and manually counting each step.

“Oh Lord, did I count them," he said.

In total, he counted 45,454 individual steps – or 18 miles of stairs. Each step is just over a half-foot in height, so if you could form one giant staircase from all of the city’s steps, they’d reach an altitude of 24,000 feet, about four-fifths the height of Mt. Everest.

The longest set of steps are on Ray Avenue in Brookline, with 378 steps, while the steepest is along Canton Avenue in Beechview, with a 37 percent grade. And half of Pittsburgh’s staircases are technically public streets. Some residents even live on these "streets." They're called orphans, Regan said.

"The nicest outcome of all my mapping of all the steps, is that 911 got to know where all the orphans were," he said. "And if they had a call from an orphan, they knew to bring different equipment ... one lady I talked to said, 'You can forget about pizza delivery.'"

As Regan describes it, the steps were really the city’s first form of "public transportation," or at least an essential piece of infrastructure – and they were free. The longest set is now gone, but had 1,000 steps and was known as the “Indian Trail” steps. They partially followed the path of the Duquesne Incline. At the time, it cost 3 cents to ride, but the stairs were free. Regan said Incline managers tried to wipe out the competition.

“The Incline spread the rumor that the steps were along an old Indian path and they were haunted, to try to get people to stop using the steps," he said.

Those steps were necessary – and used a lot. Pittsburgh’s first set of steps was built in 1911, and they were used as a way to get to the factories and steel mills along the rivers.

“The workers lived in the hills and to get the workers to work, steps were built," Regan said.

The factories are mostly gone now, but people still commute up and down hills on foot.

The South Side Slopes is home to one of the greatest concentrations of city steps. Each year, there's an annual step trek.

"It's not an athletic event," Regan said. "I call it a vertical party."

Walking up the neighborhood's 18th Street steps on a recent afternoon, city transportation planner Kristin Saunders seemed genuinely giddy, noting how busy they were. People were climbing home from work or doing errands or walking their dogs, just like they have for more than a century.

“The idea of walking is very ingrained in the city of Pittsburgh,” Saunders said. “Eleven percent of people, according to the U.S. Census, report walking to work. That’s really high for an American city. It’s part of Pittsburgh’s history but it’s also something we want to support moving forward.”

Pittsburgh officials kicked off a step inventory this summer, to find out exactly how many steps the city has, what they’re made of and what condition they’re in.

Adjacent to Lawrenceville’s Shop ‘n Save parking lot and across from the cart return is Jake Milofsky’s preferred commuting route: a set of steps that looks as though it’s being eaten by shrubbery.

“There’s a lot of knotweed and there’s a bar welded across the entrance and a sign that says ‘Steps closed,’” he said. “So you kind of have to do a little bit of navigation to get up there.”

Milofsky headed up anyway, and said to keep a lookout for exposed steel rebar and missing treads. That’s how he fell through the stairs last winter and cracked a rib.

“It could have been a lot worse,” he said. “The main lesson, mainly enforced by my wife, is that I’m not allowed to go on the stairs anymore until they’re fixed.”

Milofsky’s aren’t the only set of steps that need work, said Saunders.

“The majority of them are really old,” she said. “Their construction is pretty complex.”

Of the over 800 sets of steps the city has counted, Saunders said more than half of them sit on concrete and rebar pillars set into hillsides with their stairs suspended far above the ground.

“I like to think of them as little bridges,” she said. “The construction staging has come in a lot more expensive than anyone ever expected because the logistics of getting trucks into some of these steep slopes is really complicated. It’s a major financing question.”

Rehabbing one set of steps can cost more than half a million dollars; the price tag for fixing all of them is so hefty there isn’t even an estimate yet. It’s a problem with which cities like Cincinnati and Berkeley have also struggled.

Angelita Wynn said she's glad the city is taking on the challenge.

It was a little after 4 a.m. and Wynn, a school bus driver, was starting her daily routine: running the city steps in front of her house before her 5-year-old woke up. She said the steps are good for her health, but what they really provide is choice, flexibility.

“You have to be able to get where you need to go,” she said. “And when you don’t have access to your own transportation, or you don’t have the funds to get to the gym in my case. These steps, they are what some people just don’t have.”

In the coming months, the city will finish building its list of most-used and most dilapidated steps. Then the hunt for funding begins. But city officials are optimistic. So many people care about the steps; they’ll find a way to keep them.

90.5 WESA's Katie Blackley contributed to this report.